18 March 2016

No civility, no peace?

Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, defends the protesters at Donald Trump rallies and implies strongly that they were justified in forcing the cancellation of a Chicago rally one week ago. In the face of Trump's desire to see protesters arrested, Robinson warns the candidate that "demonstrators have the legal right to protest — and that a candidate for president of the United States has no countervailing right not to be protested." Trump and his people might attempt a distinction between protest and disruption, saying that the latter crosses some legal line, but Robinson contends that protesters have just as much right as anyone else to attend a Trump event, as long as they are peaceful. Here's another sticking point. Trump insists that the protesters are not peaceful, implying that they behave violently before security ejects them or before his own supporters attack them. Robinson and many others dispute this claim, and to my knowledge no video exists showing protesters spontaneously attacking Trump supporters in the seats. Robinson also defines "peaceful" protest as broadly as possible, to an extent Trump and others might not accept. "I’m talking about nonviolent demonstrations, of course," Robinson writes, "but nonviolent does not necessarily mean quiet, timid or small."

In effect, Robinson is arguing for protesters' right to drown Trump out, but it's fair to ask, as Trump himself has, whether liberals would feel the same way were Trump supporters organizing to drown out Hillary Clinton or Senator Sanders. However you fell about any of these politicians, the honest answer can only be that liberals would accuse pro-Trump hecklers and shouters of being bullies like their hero. Likewise, it could be argued that a cross burning on its own is a non-violent form of protest, but would Robinson agree, or would he see it as some unacceptable form of intimidation? In Trump's case, Robinson seems to believe that a desired end ('[T]hose who believe in the hallowed American values of openness, tolerance, decency and the rule of law have the absolute right to say “No!”') justifies means he might not justify when used for different ends. The volume, brazenness and size of anti-Trump demonstrations are justified for Robinson mainly because he sees Trump as a bigot. "These protests are important because they show that Americans will not take Trump’s outrageous nonsense lying down," he writes, "I believe it is important to show that those who reject Trumpism are as passionate and multitudinous as those who welcome it."He rejects the cautionary objection that shouting Trump down will only strengthen him by "heighten[ing] the sense of persecution and victimhood that Trump encourages among his supporters."Instead, he believes shows of mass disapproval "might help energize voters to come out and reject Trump in November."

On one level, Robinson is making the leftist argument that "bigotry" isn't entitled to a respectful hearing and deserves to be shouted down, whether the "bigot" sees himself as one or not. But since he's defending the protesters on freedom-of-speech grounds, he ought to acknowledge that the freedom to drown out your opponents can only be mutual and not reserved for subjectively-defined thoughtcrimes. He writes that Trump has "the absolute right" to say the things Robinson finds awful and bigoted, but he doesn't quite mean that. In effect, Robinson is arguing for a primitive sort of democracy in which public speech is equally the prerogative of everyone yet ultimately competitive in a zero-sum way. If a critical mass of protesters silences Trump in Chicago, to Robinson that seems to be democracy at work. It is, in an old sense of the word according to which the vox populi belonged to whoever gathered more people to yell louder in some public square. It's still true, however, that Trump's supporters greatly outnumbered his supporters at the Chicago venue. Could they have drowned out the protesters had Trump decided to go on with the rally? It wasn't an option, since drowning them out would have drowned out Trump himself. The pro-Trump majority would have no alternative but an appeal to a still-more primitive sort of democracy, since determined protesters can be silenced only by physical force, as when security guards remove them individually. Only the sort of mass brawl Trump apparently feared could have "drowned out" the Chicago protesters, apparently. Why wouldn't that be democracy at work as well? Robinson's answer would be that the counter-protesters would have resorted to violence, but if they want to hear their man, why should their will be vetoed by a loud minority? The implication of refusing them would be that if any minority is so angry and loud that only physical force can silence them, the majority must defer to them. Has a minority -- a political minority, that is, -- any obligation to defer to a majority? Not so much as you'd think, since this is America, but more Americans may be coming to believe that in a real democracy the will of the majority should, if you'll excuse the word, trump most minority objections, particularly when those objections are expressed in the arguably nonviolent but also uncivil manner seen in Chicago and elsewhere this year. And as I've asked before, what will the protesters do if Trump becomes President? Would the winter of his inauguration be followed by a "spring" of the sort seen in Egypt or Ukraine, and then by a long, hot summer?

Democracy in America wasn't meant to be a matter of who can yell the loudest or who can bring more fists to a fight. The Framers probably never imagined a time when a candidate for office -- who by their rules of etiquette shouldn't electioneer for himself anyway, much less in Trump's vulgar manner -- was so odious to so many that he could barely make himself heard on the stump. Of course, had any of them rivaled Trump for any office the billionaire probably would have found himself called to the field of honor, if he wasn't caned in the street. Perhaps Trump should consider himself lucky he lives in our time, the only time, perhaps, when as vacuous a boob as he could vie plausibly for the highest office in the land. We can argue that attempts to shout him down are an affront to liberal democracy, but his success to date probably means that liberal democracy was in big trouble before any of Trump's antagonists raised their voices, not just because the party-primary system lets him flourish, but also because people have grown so disgusted with the whole political process that they just want to see Trump wreck things and humiliate people. Inevitably, that makes people want to humiliate Trump and his fans. Democracy has become a petty thing, but unless you can name any likely dictator material out there I guess we're stuck with it, though neither Donald Trump nor Eugene Robinson are doing it any favors.


Anonymous said...

Then let them protest - at the ballot. Or let Trump supporters act as loudly and rudely at Clinton and Sanders functions. It doesn't matter, because as long as a party member is elected, the status quo remains.

Anonymous said...

Well, if the American people hadn't spent the past sixty years shitting on the intelligent and bolstering their own petty egos by voting for politicians they'd be willing to sit down and have a beer with, we wouldn't be in such dire straits. I put the blame entirely on the fact that the majority of Americans have embraced ignorance, rather than educate themselves. This is because, intellectually, Americans are LAZY. We don't want to do the research, we want someone to just tell us the answer - especially if the answer they're selling is what we already believe to be true. The United States is on a long downward spiral and will continue to plummet until the American people have had the "stupid slapped out of them".

Samuel Wilson said...

March 20: Worse yet, it looks now like the stupidest Americans are the ones most eager to slap the stupid out of everyone else.